All Commentary
Friday, November 1, 1991

Art and Representative Government

William R. Allen is professor of economics at UCLA; he and William Dickneider collaborate on the Midnight Economist radio program, syndicated by the Reason Foundation of Santa Monica, California.

There, on a patio of a university campus, was a pile of twisted, rusted iron pipe. But it wasn’t debris from plumbing renovation. It was an art exhibition.

Why had the artist blessed us with this miniature junkyard? It was neither pretty to the eye nor coherent to the mind. Of course, we are not to ask what a modern painting or sculpture is. But perhaps it is legitimate to ask what the artist meant to convey.

If we generously presume that the artist is really saying something of importance, how are we to receive and translate the message? Are we to suppose that the message sent is the same as the message received? If not, this is peculiar and clumsy communication. Or maybe no message is being sent although one is to be received, with the receiver doing the artist’s work by inferring something that wasn’t transmitted.

Perhaps interaction between producer and consumer isn’t the intended game, at all. Maybe the purpose of the artist is personal catharsis: by dumping rusted pipe on the patio, he gets a psychological monkey off his back. Or maybe it is to be a profitable variation of “the emperor’s clothes” scam, with a clientele of connoisseurs finding art where lesser folk see only junk.

Within broad limits—if the art community is to be subject to any constraints—surely “producer sovereignty” should prevail, with individual artists determining the nature of their own creations. But let there be also “consumer sovereignty” in consumption of the art produced. Let consumers determine for themselves the works of art they pay for. Further, don’t restrict philanthropists in subsidizing artists: one of the tenets of a system of markets and private property is that people generally can dispose of their assets as they please. But two points of elaboration.

First, while artists are to be free to use resources which either they buy with their earned income or which are given to them by private patrons, they have no right to commandeer resources from unwilling contributors through exploiting the coercive powers of government.

Second, we are not morally obliged either to subsidize or to deify artists. While we guard the freedom to create works of art—even piles of twisted, rusted pipe—protecting artistic freedom is very different from insisting that taxpayers buy whatever people chose to produce with that freedom.

But some artists, like some of the rest of us, can be seduced by government favor and applause. “The arts are not a luxury,” says a lawmaker, “they are the soul of society.” Art “reflects things that are happening in our society,” says another, “and closing our eyes will not make these things go away. Such art can help us recognize other influences on our culture and even help us understand them. And if it does not help me or you specifically, you can be sure that it is helping someone, somewhere, who can relate to it.”

Artists are not loath to accept an exalted role. “. . . art is social conscience,” we are assured by the director of a subsidized theater. “Art,” he says, “has only one obligation—to tell stories and make images about who and what we are and who and what we might become.” In all the community, “only the artist must tell the truth.”

Such precious rationalization for raids on the Treasury cannot be analytically persuasive. Better to acknowledge simply that beneficiaries want the money and politicians want their support—and to remember that the arts flourished for most of America’s history without substantial Federal money. Only in the last few decades has government put arts significantly on the dole.

Government is not the wellspring of art and culture. Nor does some law of nature or sense of social survival compel us to clutch sensitive artistic souls as our conscience, guide, or judge. Subsidizing artists is not a role of government that is clearly legitimate or even commonly accepted. All except addled anarchists acknowledge that government does have reason for being. Most agree that government properly provides such fundamental services and arrangements as law and order and administration of justice, national defense, and protecting property rights which conduce economic efficiency and social stability.

But something like subsidization of the arts is an alien element in this context. It is not a “public good” like national defense, for markets have long provided ample incentive for artists to meet consumers’ preferences. And while the state has compelled us to pay for many things we would not have approved if given effective choice, we do not legitimize new error by past error.

Able people have long debated the appropriate purposes of government. But if there are any limits to what should concern government, then subsidization of art, however defined and identified, is pushing out the boundaries very far. Indeed, if idiosyncratic behavior not valued by the bulk of the community is to receive largess from the public trough, then little remains of representative government.

  • William R. Allen is an economist, professor and author. He is known for his authorship of economic literature alongside frequent co-author Armen Alchian.
    Allen obtained his A.B. (Bachelor of Arts) from Cornell College (1948) and his Ph.D. from Duke University (1953).

    He instructed at Washington University prior to joining the UCLA faculty in 1952. He has been a visiting professor at Northwestern University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Michigan, Southern Illinois University, and Texas A&M University, and he has been on the faculty of the Colorado School of Banking.